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Heidi Holton: The Lady Sings (and Plays) the Blues

Heidi Holton brings a package of soulful vocals and unforgettable artistry to her performance
of the blues.

Story by David Coulson

It was a brisk spring evening on April 27 when she sauntered through the door of Appalachian Mountain Brewery. With long, dark locks dangling down her back and even darker eyes, Heidi Holton was carrying a beige, travel guitar case with her prized possession, a Gibson J-45 guitar under lock and key.

The regulars who attended AMB’s Open Mic Night each week were always curious about newcomers, but there was something different about this woman. There was an air of confidence and an engaging personality that commanded attention.

The conversation in the room quickly turned to Holton.

“Do you know this girl?” one of my friends asked.

I shook my head, “No, I’ve never seen her before.”

But I was determined to find out.

Heidi Holton quickly unleashed a friendly smile and her fun-loving persona lit up the room as I introduced myself.

The more she told me about herself, the more intrigued I became.

I asked her if she had a time slot to play that night?

“No, I called in this afternoon, but they had everything filled,” she explained.

It only took me a few seconds to make her an offer.

“You can have some of my time,” I declared. “I want to hear you sing!”

A few minutes later, this stunning disciple of the Delta Blues walked on to the stage, sat down gently and took over the place.

Passion combined with artistry and incredible technique makes Heidi Holton’s sound
memorable and unique.

Holton launched into the classic Blind Willie McTell song Statesboro Blues, The crowd’s collective jaw dropped open as she shredded on this blues standard and showed off her distinct, resonant voice.

But if that wasn’t enough, Holton’s next song blew the roof off the place.

It was a tune off her soon-to-released, third solo album. Titled “I Am A Snake,’ it told the story of a housewife tricked into a steamy affair by a less-than-honorable handyman, making the rounds in the neighborhood.

The prize possession of this sensitive artist is her Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar. Photo by Nathan Baerreis

Sung from the wife’s perspective, this up-tempo piece explores justifying one’s questionable decisions in the throes of passion.

Inside the packed house, Holton was the talk of musicians and customers alike for weeks.

“Is Heidi going to be here tonight?” was often the first thing I was asked on Wednesday night.

The amazing skills of this blues woman weren’t finished yet, however.

Following her on stage were several members of the Adam Church Band, Church, guitarist Jordan Lamb and mandolin and trumpet player Blake Bostain, for an artist showcase.

The second Heidi Holton album, Why Mama Cries, broke new ground for a performer steeped in both the tradition and the future of the blues Photo by Nathan Baerreis

Watching nearby, Holton sprung into action when Church broke a guitar string during one of his songs. Holton dashed for her guitar case and swapped out guitars for Church while he was still singing and then changed the broken string before his next piece.

We learned that Holton isn’t just a dynamic performer, but she can double as a guitar tech in a pinch.

“One of the first things I do when I go to a new town is scout out open mics,” Holton said. “It’s a great way to get a feel for the local music scene and I’ve made some life-long friends that way.”

Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains has had a huge influence on the music of Holton.
Photo by Nathan Baerreis

Holton quickly discovered AMB’s Open Mic Night when she moved to Boone around Thanksgiving of 2021, fresh off a year of isolation in central Alaska, living in a cabin near the Iditarod Trail. The small structure didn’t have running water and the snowpack piled up over the roof.

While the world was battling Covid, Holton was taking a year to rest, reflect and teach yoga classes. It was a startling change for an artist who performed 150-200 days a year and someone who had toured in Italy, England, Scotland and Canada, besides the United States. But the longer she went without performing, the more she craved getting back on stage.

Boone became Holton’s reentry into the more modern world when she was offered a job as a program director at the Art of Living Center. Having toured extensively since she was 15 years old, Holton was ready to begin performing again, but there were a couple of snags.

The winter months isolated her again at the Art of Living ashram where she had an apartment and the demands of her new job made it hard for her to find time to play.

Photo by Nathan Baerreis

“I found out about the open mic when I first got here, but between my job and the snow, I didn’t have time to come.”

After this disciple of alternate tunings and awesome slide technique made her debut, Holton became a fan favorite.

She made several more appearances at AMB, including an artist showcase in late June. She also began some limited touring again in places like Mooresvile, Black Mountain and Burnsville.

Holton received the opportunity to check off a bucket list item on June 6 when she was invited to perform on the popular television/radio series Woodsongs. Distributed nationally to a PBS television audience, streamed live each week on YouTube and listened to in 147 countries, Woodsongs has featured some of the most recognizable roots-music artists on the planet.

Heidi and a group performs at Stones Cafe in Vignola.

“I was really nervous,” said Holton, who originally thought the event was being taped in Lexington, N.C., instead of six-and-a-half-hours away at the historic Lyric Theater in Lexington, Kentucky. “I didn’t have time to prepare. I didn’t have that much time to even practice.”

Playing on the bill with dobro guitarist/singer/songwriter Abbie Gardner and a 14-year-old dobro prodigy named Amelia Brown (who learned to play her instrument during the Covid shutdown, of all things), the ambiance of this beautiful venue and the fact she was playing one of the most significant gigs of her life before such a large audience turned Holton’s doubts into the most stunning of performances.

She also showed another side of her character when she was the first person to congratulate Brown after her national debut, hugging the youngster and reinforcing what had been a significant experience for the teenager.

It made Holton think back to the discouraging words from naysayers when she was a young performer.

Heidi Holton won a new audience of fans on her tour of England and Scotland in 2019.

It took a few years for important people in the music industry to discover this musical enchantress, but once they did, some significant heavyweights lined up in her corner.

Holton was born and raised in the oldest city in America, St. Augustine, Florida. She began learning piano at four or five years old and was soon performing small recitals. But the piano didn’t fulfill her musical dreams.

“It was very rigid,” Holton said of learning to read music and practice other people’s music. “I never really enjoyed playing a keyboard. There was a different feel from the start with the guitar.”

Holton’s exploration of her dad’s prodigious vinyl record collection at age 14 changed her musical direction.

“I discovered this band called Hot Tuna and fell in love with Jorma Kaukonen’s blues guitar-playing,” Holton said.

Her family bought her a used guitar a short time later and she set off learning to play an instrument that captivated her.

Within a year, she was playing her first gig, sneaking into a local bar as a 15-year-old.

Despite her obvious talent, Holton had to overcome plenty of criticism from people who said she couldn’t sing or play well enough to make it as a musician.

Heidi performing at Festa della Castagna in Tuscany.

She also suffered from vision problems as a kid and eventually had to undergo a double cornea replacement. Those surgeries and contact lens have corrected her vision and allowed her independence.

After graduating from high school, Holton studied philosophy (a subject very evident in her songwriting) at UNC-Wilmington, graduating with honors. It was time for this free spirit to explore the world. She spent several years playing punk and heavy metal with groups in places like Athens, Georgia and New Orleans, collecting  stories and adventures along the way.

But a period of self-evaluation and the breakup of a romantic relationship led her to decide she needed to take her guitar-playing more seriously. That period is reflected in one of the poignant songs from her third CD, Piety Street.

At  the  age  of 25, she learned that Kaukonen gave guitar lessons at his Fur Place Ranch complex in Ohio. Holton quickly booked herself for the next session and was off on her  motorcycle, with acoustic guitar strapped on the back to meet Kakonen.

“Jorma was the first person to tell me I had the talent to make it in the music business,” Holton said. “He told me he thought I had a good voice when so many people had made fun of me before.”

It was an epic moment of confidence building for Holton.

“Jorma convinced me to just go for it.” Holton said. “I’d never had anyone really encourage me.”

It didn’t take long for Holton to also become like an adopted family member to Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, who years later encouraged her move to Boone.

Holton draws her musical inspiration from a deep reservoir of sources.
Photo by Nathan Baerreis

Another key relationship was formed when Holton met the foremost woman of American country blues and a six-time winner of the Blues Music Awards, Rory Block.

After Holton’s artistic success with her first album, the 2015 project Mockingbird Blues, Block agreed to produce Heidi’s second release, Why Mama Cries, in 2018.

The second album showed Holton gaining confidence as a performer and a songwriter and leading to a successful North American tour with Block.

The single Haunt Your Own Houses broke onto various blues charts and received air play in numerous countries around the world.

That also led Holton to gain the opportunity to tour in Europe.

Heidi with a group of friends at Jump Cafe in Forlí.

Holton and Block collaborated on another album in 2019 that has a tentative title of Let Me Bleed. This CD was set for release in 2020 before Covid derailed much of the music industry.

Holton is trying to secure a record deal for her third album and if the five songs from it she has been performing live, such as I Am A Snake and Piety Street, are any indication, this will lead to even more acclaim, success and attention for this blossoming artist.

And most of all, she is looking forward to returning to the stage on a regular basis in 2023.

“I am a serious person, but I love to have fun,” Holton said. “Hopefully, the things that I love will become part of pop culture.”

Heidi Holton shows off her skills on slide guitar. Photo by Nathan Baerreis